Humility as the Key to Life: Ramban’s Iggeret

I had occasion this week to review Ramban’s letter to his son. While Iggeret haRamban, as it’s called, is reasonably well known in the abstract, printed in the back of some siddurim, and has been translated into English, I find that many of its core messages have been forgotten.

Allow me to review some.

Anger is a Gateway Drug

He starts by urging his son to always speak calmly or softly (בנחת), as a way of avoiding (literally, being saved from) anger. In reminding us of the dangers Judaism saw in anger, he includes Nedarim 22a, that becoming angry subjects a person to all sorts of hell. (In his Laws of Character, Hilchot De’ot, Rambam rules that we must avoid two character traits completely; anger is one, we’ll see the other in a second).

Anger is itself problematic and destructive, but avoiding anger benefits us by teaching humility. Ramban doesn’t explain how, but I think it’s because anger is often if not always self-focused; we object to wrongs we see, we get angry about them for reasons that almost always have an element of self-focus (we might get angry when someone else’s actions ring too true to our own for comfort, so we become angry. Or, someone else makes us feel vulnerable or threatened, even if it’s not aimed at us, so we become angry. And so on.).

Humility and the Road to Awe

Ramban sees humility as the greatest of all traits, especially since it leads to proper awe of Hashem; because, apparently, one of the most significant roadblocks to awe is our concern with ourselves. To accept that we cannot understand Hashem except in the ways revealed to us, and that we therefore have to serve in those ways Hashem dictates (except where Hashem specifically invites us to make the choice) takes a great deal of self-abnegation.

To accept that I shouldn’t eat this, speak like that, do that, because Hashem said so, even when it might feel tremendously right, even when I want to with all my being, takes a proper view of Hashem, but also of ourselves. We might recognize Hashem’s incommensurability, Hashem’s filling the whole universe and more, but that won’t impact us as it needs to if we are, at the same time, holding fast to an immodest (unhumble, if you will) view of ourselves.

Thinking Our Way to Humility

How we treat others is a third way to foster humility, by not allowing what we see as our superiority over others to lead us to think we’re actually better than them. Whether it’s wealth, wisdom, or even righteousness, Ramban offers reminders to stop us from stepping over the line between recognizing difference and allowing difference to inflate our egos.

For wealth, we need to remember—and we today live in a cultural milieu that vigorously denies this—that Hashem is the ultimate source of wealth and poverty. Today, so much rhetoric is devoted to the idea that we chart our financial futures, that our effort and hard work is what will or won’t make us rich. While it’s true that our efforts are important to that, they’re not the whole story. Years ago, I remember arguing at length with a very religious businessman, who nonetheless insisted that the best businessman always makes the most money.

Ramban wants us to remember that many other factors go into that, especially the role Hashem plays. We can watch people of equal intelligence, insight, personal qualities, and see one become fabulously wealthy, another middle class, and another poor, and not for obvious reasons of effort or investment in earning money.  There are intangibles, and at least some of those are from Hashem.

Remembering that will allow us to avoid the grave error of thinking we’re better than others because we have more money than they do. Higher position and the honor that brings, also comes from Hashem; this is perhaps clearer, although our worship of celebrity can fool us into forgetting it—the people who become famous and well-regarded, or politically powerful, are not necessarily the best at what they do (it’s easy to name politicians from both sides of the aisle who’s ascent to power is puzzling, since they do not seem to have the intelligence, insight, or charisma to have gotten to where they did).

What if we’re smarter or wiser (which are not the same)? That, too, comes from Hashem (and we all know people who had their wisdom taken from them, particularly late in life). Bottom line, whatever we might credit to ourselves to fuel our self-puffery has some element of a divine gift, and must therefore not be a source of pride. (One possible exception, our efforts to serve Hashem, is from us; Ramban will deal with that in a moment).

Behavioral Humility

We achieve humility, for Ramban, behaviorally; act humble, and we’ll become humble. It starts with maintaining a calm and soft tone, as he started, and continues with walking with head down, eyes cast to earth (and heart in the heavens, thinking of Hashem), and not looking people in the face as we speak with them.

In writing this, Ramban allows for a Modern Orthodox moment. While some would reject Ramban’s prescription as not applicable in our times and therefore to be ignored (the non-Orthodox approach), and others would insist we have to keep it as he said (the “right-wing” approach), the approach I learned from my teachers was that we apply the principles Ramban is espousing in the cultural context in which we currently live.

Today, we would insult others by refusing to look them in the face as we speak with them (it’s therefore perhaps arrogant to do so). Walking with head down can seem aloof, as if we’re disinterested in social interactions. But as we look at people, as we look around us as we walk, there is no reason not to remember the humility Ramban would have us bring to that.

In addition to remembering that whatever advantages we think we have do not translate into allowing ourselves to think we are better than others, Ramban urges his son (and us) to respect in others that which stands out about them—if they are wise or wealthy, we have to honor them (he does not explain, but I think he means that both practically, as a matter of human relations, and because they have the ability to do good for the world in ways we might not be able to, and we have to respect that).

Barring that—if we’re richer or wiser, for example—we have to remember the responsibility that places upon us. Hashem assesses the transgressions of a poorer and less intelligent or less wise person more forgivingly, since that sinner doesn’t fully understand. We, the wise or wealthy, might be doing it on purpose; greater resources assign greater responsibility, and greater culpability if we fail.

Finally, we should strive to be aware, as much as we can, that we are always in Hashem’s presence. That should affect all our actions, including even how we respond when someone calls us. Ramban opposes raising our voices, as we would when in the presence of a human teacher.

Assertive Humility

In our times, recommendations like Ramban’s often sound like a prescription of quietism, defeatism, staying a nobody, with no power or influence. We think it takes a dose of arrogance to stand up for ourselves; some of us think that it takes anger to protest wrongs we witness. It is hard to see, but Jewish tradition did not see it that way.

We can oppose what’s wrong for the objective wrongness of it without bringing our ego into it—we can tell our children, for example, that we cannot allow them to behave certain ways, or even that we will be required to respond forcefully should they act in those ways, without that including the ego-focused element of anger.

Similarly, we can act forcefully in business or in our relationships, expressing that which we would prefer, or that which we think is most productive, without that being a statement of arrogance. “As far as I understand, the best way forward is…” and then work hard and insistently to see that brought to fruition. And if it comes about, and is successful, to remind ourselves that it does not allow us to feel as if we are better than others.

The Discipline of Torah, the Focus of Tefillah

It’s not simple or easily achieved. Some other methods Ramban mentions—valuable in and of themselves and for the already-stated goals—are to study Torah regularly, always seeking the ways in which the Torah one learns can impact our practical lives, looking for how we might apply that which we’ve learned to situations we face. He is also a proponent of regular self-assessment, reviewing one’s activities morning and evening, to repent immediately of any places we ‘ve gone wrong.

Then, there’s prayer. By focusing fully (Ramban says to remove all thoughts of the regular world; I assume he means other than those we specifically want to make the topic of requests to Hashem), preparing our hearts and thoughts, thinking of what we’re going to say before we say it (good general advice, let alone for prayer), we’ll keep ourselves from sinning, and will pray in the best possible way.

Active Memory

Ramban closes by telling his son to read the letter once a week at least, with an eye towards fulfilling its dictates, and promises that on any day he reads it, Heaven will answer his prayers. I’m not sure how he could guarantee that, but I am more struck by his certainty that these ideas require repeat readings.

After the first ten or twenty weeks, you’d think Ramban’s son (or us) would know it pretty well. But that’s not the point: when it comes to shaping our characters, it’s not knowing it, it’s remembering it, experiencing it, and acting on it. And that takes constant reminders.

Which is one reason I thought this might be worth spreading, maybe even enticing some people to read the letter in the original, and to make it a regular part of how we remind ourselves to work on becoming the best version of ourselves that we can.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.